With Latest Fight, The Trump White House Scrambles for Credibility
Gen. Kelly’s Response Falls Flat as Uproar Continues
As President Trump enters the second week of his controversy over a condolence call to a Gold Star widow, his White House finds itself reaching a new low when it comes to his administration’s credibility, particularly among reliable figure.
Myeshia Johnson, the widow of fallen Sgt. La David Johnson, told ABC News point-blank that the account of her phone call as described by Congresswoman Frederica Wilson (D-FL) was entirely true. Trump was allegedly insensitive, disinterested, and disrespectful to someone who lost her husband several weeks earlier. Trump has vehemently denied this account of events — even as multiple White House staffers and his Chief of Staff John Kelly didn’t dispute this series of events.
This, of course, is not President Trump’s first time attacking a Gold Star family. His well-publicized feud with the Khan family was widely criticized, as he implied that Ghazala Khan’s silence was because she was a Muslim woman. Yet the introduction of General John Kelly, a figure that wasn’t present in Trump’s 2016 campaign fight, has created its own set of problems.
Kelly spoke in front of the White House Press Corps, visibly emotional, to give an objectively stirring defense of President Trump’s phone call. Kelly discussed how sacred he felt these calls were, being a Gold Star parent himself, and how shameful it felt to have Congresswoman Wilson to politicize what should have been a solemn moment. In the immediate aftermath of his press conference, the press recognized how effective his words and demeanor were in defending Trump and reflecting the situation’s severity. Yet this was short-lived, as the tides began turning against not only President Trump, but General Kelly as well.
Kelly made the claim that Congresswoman Wilson has always been selfish, and took full credit for a FBI Building dedicated to two fallen agents, making her speech all about her. That was a lie. Kelly said it was wrong that Congresswoman Wilson listened in on the call, completely ignoring the fact that she was a family friend, a mentor for Sgt. Johnson, and allowed to listen in by the family. And with Myeshia Johnson’s confirmation of Congresswoman Wilson’s account, General Kelly’s claims of Trump’s sympathy and respect now stands against the statement of a Gold Star widow.
Compared to Kelly’s ascension to the Chief of Staff position, where Trump skeptics viewed him as a force that could change the White House’s culture, this controversy has been a complete disaster, damaging Kelly’s image and highlighting the continuing credibility problem within the Trump White House. Calls for an apology to Congresswoman Wilson have been rising. Right-leaning pundits have recognized that Kelly is powerless to stop Trump’s most outrageous impulses. As for the defenders of General Kelly? They’ve gone as far as saying the outcry is evidence we should draft more people to serve, so they could see Kelly’s point of view.
General Kelly’s inability to keep President Trump’s affairs in orders is nothing surprising. Kelly only became Chief of Staff after one of the most volatile staffing shake-ups in White House history. But there is more going on than just the damage being done to President Trump’s image. Kelly, with his latest defense of Trump, is finding that his credibility is taking a severe hit, going from an admired, accomplished general to nothing more than a partisan.
Even before Myeshia Johnson’s reveal that the call allegations were true, Kelly’s speech focused not on defending the condolence call, but defending his boss’s character. Kelly ignored the context of Congresswoman Wilson’s relationship with the Johnsons and lied about past statements made by her, painting Wilson as an anti-Trump partisan looking to score political points. Yet all Kelly’s statement did was score political points, not for his image, but for President Trump’s.
Kelly isn’t the first person to risk their credibility for the sake of the White House. From Sean Spicer’s claim on the inauguration attendance to Rex Tillerson’s press conference over reports of a feud between him and Trump, loyalty is a necessity for working in this administration. Yet with General Kelly, we aren’t dealing with a former private citizen or even elected official, but someone who most of the public reveres for his service to his country. Americans view military figures as above the fray of politics, non-partisans who are only concerned with the success of the country. This is why many skeptics had hope that Kelly, James Mattis, and H.R. McMaster could lay down the law and tame the beast that is the Trump White House.
But with Kelly’s latest press conference, it is not only clear that little is changing in the White House’s culture, but that they are running out of options to save their reputation. Kelly’s words against Congresswoman Wilson were not a straightforward description of events, but an obscuring of the facts, making the situation all about Wilson when the Johnson family had something to say. He went after a political opponent while ignoring the constituents who told him she was speaking for them. General Kelly was no more above the fray than most politicians are on a daily basis. And while many will argue that politics is the game being played, Kelly’s role was not to be in the mud, but above it. Kelly effectively turned himself into a political figure that aligns himself with Trump’s actions and agenda, rather than someone who can be objective and tell the president when he is wrong.
Trump skeptics no longer look towards Kelly as a reassuring figure, but one that has fallen victim to the same rules that ruin most public figures. And for an administration with so few credible figures that struggle to be taken seriously, Kelly’s credibility hit could lead to problems far bigger than a controversy over a condolence call.
Izzy Rodriguez is a writer and student at Rice University. You can follow Izzy for more commentary on politics and pop culture on Twitter @IzzyRxdriguez.